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Families of ill-fated Sulpicio ship to appeal court ruling

Families of ill-fated Sulpicio ship to appeal court ruling
Arlie O. Calalo December 3, 2021

THE Public Attorney's Office (PAO) on Thursday said the families of the passengers and crew of the M/V Princess of the Stars who perished off the coast of Romblon in 2008 will appeal the ruling of a Manila court dismissing the criminal case against one of the owners of the ill-fated ship.

PAO chief Persida Rueda-Acosta said they were shocked to learn about the ruling of Judge Maria Paz Reyes-Yson of Branch 54 of the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC).

In her 13-page ruling dated November 18, Reyes-Yson granted the demurrer to evidence filed by Edgar Go, first vice president for administration of Sulpicio Lines Inc. (SLI), which resulted in the dismissal of the case.

Go was team leader of the liner's crisis management committee. SLI has since been renamed Philippine Span Asia Carrier Inc.

"It's only the first time in my entire life to learn of a case filed against an accused that was suddenly dismissed without the concerned parties receiving even simple notices, there must be magic here, there must be something behind here," Rueda-Acosta said.

The PAO chief insisted that the prosecution has "overwhelming evidence" to prove that Go had the "power, authority, duty to control and decide matters pertaining the vessel's navigation at sea." "He (Go) even admitted publicly during the clarificatory hearing that he was in command of the M/V Princess of the Stars and that port captains were reporting to him. Such admission is of public knowledge," Rueda-Acosta said.

"There is also a denial of due process considering that the prosecution and the private complainants were not given the right to file their comment/opposition to the demurrer to evidence before the court issued its assailed order," she added.

Insisting on the clear liability of Go over the sea tragedy that resulted in the death of 814 out of 870 passengers and crew on board, Rueda-Acosta said the Supreme Court sustained the findings of the Department of Justice (DoJ) that Go was "unarguably involved in making decisions on whether a vessel would be allowed to sail out of the Port of Manila." "The court thus concludes that the DoJ panel's resolution clearly supports a prima facie finding that reckless imprudence under Article 365 of the Revised Penal Code has been committed. The DoJ panel, in arriving at such conclusion, did not just rely on the affidavits of the complainants and witnesses, it also conducted clarificatory hearings wherein respondents, namely: Captain Eugenio (SLI Manila port), Captain Ponteres (SLI Cebu port) and Engineer Morales (SLI Manila port safety officer), among others, appeared and testified," the high court said.

The PAO chief reiterated that the prosecution has sufficiently established the identity and culpability of Go.

"He was the one communicating with the vessel, before, during and after the capsizing of the vessel. It is the reason why among the officers and owners of SLI, it was only Edgar S. Go who was indicted," she pointed out.

In her decision, Reyes-Yson said there was no sufficient evidence to sustain the indictment or to support a verdict of guilt against Go and that there is no evidence showing his specific functions, especially the responsibility of monitoring the vessel prior to and during the voyage.

More than 13 years after the sea tragedy, a Cebu judge ordered the indemnification of 55 heirs of the victims amounting to P226.9 million including lawyers' fees.

The passenger ferry sank on June 21, 2008 off the coast of San Fernando, Romblon, in rough seas at the height of Typhoon "Frank."

Rueda-Acosta said of the 59 cases, 55 were granted damages while four were dismissed for failure to present evidence.

She said 71 cases were consolidated and filed before the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 51 and 63 others were filed before Branch 16 in Cebu.

"In Manila, the cases were decided in favor of the plaintiffs by Manila RTC Judge Daniel Villanueva (Branch 51) and ordered the award of damages to the plaintiffs. But the Villanueva decision is still the subject of an appeal before the Court of Appeals," she said.

She also expressed gratitude to Dr. Erwin Erfe, PAO Forensics Division chief, who led the exhumation and identification of 38 skeletal remains of the victims and 100 skeletal remains of those trapped under the water, the panel of public attorneys and the Philippine Coast Guard as well as volunteers.